Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

By Egan, Edward M. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

Egan, Edward M., The Catholic Historical Review

Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. By Jonathan Kwitny. (New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1997. Pp. xii, 754. $30.00.)

Jonathan Kwitny, for many years a feature writer for the Wall Street Journal, has with Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, offered the reading public yet another long and deeply felt biography of the present Holy Father. This is not a finished work of historical scholarship. Nor was it intended to be such. It is a biography; and as Allan Nevins reminds us in The Gateway to History (Garden City: Anchor, 1962), biography can be an important aid to history, especially when it "humanizes the past and enriches personal experience of the present in a way that history can seldom do" (p. 349).

There is, however, a danger. Unless biographers are ever alert, they can fall into the trap which Carl G. Gustavson has termed the "Great Man theory," whereby major developments of history are all too easily attributed to individuals who are presented as exerting "an almost superhuman control over the fate of their generation" (cf. A Preface to History [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955], p. 123).

In the judgment of this reviewer, Jonathan Kwitny has not escaped the Gustavson trap. He is striving to refute the contention of Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi that Communism crumbled in Europe because of a secret collaboration between Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan (cf. His Holiness [New York: Doubleday, 1996]) and in the process concludes that virtually all of the credit for the crumbling belongs to the Holy Father. Thus, the result is not so much a clear-headed biography as a thesis straing to uncover proofs and often settling for a good deal less.

All the same, the book is well worth the time of a reader who wishes to learn more about the extraordinary successor of Saint Peter who has been shepherding the Catholic Church over the past twenty years. It presents the major events in his life gracefully and with immense respect, and it provides a good deal of insight especially into the years before he was elected to the papacy. Finally, it introduces the reader to many persons and groups in Poland who are not well known outside that nation and certainly appear to have exerted considerable influence on the character and outlook of Pope John Paul II.

Still, one cannot help but feel that an editor well acquainted with things Catholic ought to have been invited to go through the text in order to remove some of the more unfortunate inexactitudes. To imagine that the Belgian College in Rome can best be described in terms of"an American fraternity house" (p. 97), to define the Order of Malta as "a Church-sponsored anti-Communist group" (p. 184), to reduce the Tribunal of the Roman Rota to "a sort of Vatican supreme court for annulments" (p. 495), and to suggest-if this is what the author intended to suggest-that Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal of Nicaragua were "cardinals" (p. 466)-all of this, and much more, could have been and should have been corrected.

Moreover, it is regrettable that many of the most important achievements of Pope John Paul II in his spiritual leadership of the Church are accorded little or no serious attention.

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